Back in Time: Retracing the Path to Diversity

May 28, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Industrial bread production is based on speed, scale and uniformity. To supply this system, industrially grown grain is limited to a few, highly controlled varieties. But greater diversity would make grain crops more adaptable and therefore more sustainable in the long run. How are some plant breeders, farmers, millers and bakers retracing the path to ancient, diverse grains that will see us eating healthier, tastier bread into the future?

All grain was once grass

Some 10,000 years ago, hunter gatherers began to eat different grasses to supplement their diet of berries, nuts, meat and fish. Over time, they domesticated some of these grasses through careful cultivation. In his book Six Thousand Years of Bread, H.E. Jacob describes how early man transformed the “wild grain into a domestic animal”. So began thousands of years of humans working with the environment to grow grain that could adapt to different climates and soils. However, with the onset of industrial farming in the early 20th century ‘ancient grains’, as they are now called, and the knowledge developed with them, became a thing of the past.

Diversity creates stability

Dr Philippa Ryan is an archeobotanist at The British Museum who specialises in studying ancient grains and understanding why some varieties might have been forgotten or lost while others were encouraged. At the Oxford Food Forum | Future of Food’s recent conference, she spoke about how Sudanese farmers have an historic capacity to adapt to changes in climate, technology and the economy. This resilience is due in large part to their diverse use of established grains such as pearl millet, sorghum, barley and wheat, which have been adapted over time.

Her research project called Care for the Future: Thinking Forward Through the Past aims to find out “how present-day and ancient peoples have found solutions for coping with a risky environment”. She believes that varieties and crop diversity play a major part in these solutions.

The industrial process of food production treats food as a commodity within large-scale systems, which are unstable and in constant need of intervention and adjustment. Each time a pathogen or pest threatens a crop, each time a plant is bred for yield and not for variation, the solutions are short term and industrial.

Professor Martin Wolfe is a plant pathologist and principal scientific advisor at Organic Research Centre, Elm Farm and farmer at Wakelyns Farm. Wakelyns is growing a variety of crops organically, developing sustainable energy sources, and growing and milling wheat grain at its agroforestry farm in North Suffolk. When I met Wolfe at the farm he explained the legal, economic and environmental background to plant breeding, which he has been involved in during a 50-year career as a plant pathologist.

He believes that the lack of wheat seed varieties available for farmers to buy is characteristic of “[an] industrial bread based on lack of diversity”. The industrial values of high yield and ease of milling are seen as more important than crop resilience and diversity: pesticides, fungicides and scientific hybridisation can solve the challenges posed by pests, disease and environmental conditions. But is this approach sustainable or good for our health?

Wolfe is optimistic about a recent temporary change in European Union (EU) legislation that encourages and supports non-industrial organic breeders and farmers to grow heritage grains by providing “opportunities for exploiting heritage varieties, composite cross populations (now marketable as part of an EU-wide marketing experiment) and organically bred European varieties for use in UK organic agriculture”.

Wolfe now has a commercial farm in West Suffolk growing the varieties he has bred, aiming to produce flour from “a diverse crop that has emerged from a wide range of carefully chosen parent plants. [This is] intended to meet the demands of climate change,” says the label on a Wakelyn’s bag of flour.

Is milling a craft or a science?

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Nigel Barratt, Chairman of the Woodbridge Tide Mill, believes that to produce healthy and tasty flour both craft and science are needed. The mill sits on the river Deben in East Suffolk and demonstrates how sustainable energy can be used to power the production of up to 10 tonnes of local flour per year. In his talk, ‘Is milling a craft or a science?’ at the annual National Mills Weekend in May, Barratt explained that Tide Mill flour has nothing added and nothing taken away as the grain is slowly stone milled and kept cool enough for nutrients and minerals to remain in the flour. Industrial steel roller milling is faster and hotter, which means four essential natural nutrients are removed in the reduction process and have to be added back in to comply with legislation.

Barratt’s knowledge and care in producing flour with a team of trustees and volunteers was in stark contrast to the industrial milling and bread making shown on a recent BBC2 programme. Here, milling and baking relied on uniform wheat, sugar fed yeast, additives, high speed and increased rising times in the mass produced Chorleywood bread process, which is all science and no craft.

“Time is my main ingredient”

Non-industrial bakers, whether they describe themselves as traditional, craft or artisan, recognise the importance of time in the bread-making process. This key belief was echoed by Suffolk artisan baker Martin Clarke when I asked him his thoughts on sustainable and healthy bread. He uses the Tide Mill flour, water and a little yeast to make his wholemeal, wood-oven baked loaves, but his main ingredient, he says, “is time”. He believes it is the way we mill and transport grain and flour on a large and fast industrial scale that are the main challenges to a sustainable bread future.

The award-winning Woodbridge Cake Shop Bakery in Suffolk is run by Peter Wright and his five children. Andrea Wright is the eldest and heads the third generation in the family baking business. I spoke to Andrea about the bakery’s carefully selected quality range of 18 different bread flours. They bake a distinctive 72-hour sourdough bread, a spelt loaf, a range of gluten-free cakes, savouries and other ancient recipe loaves such as Saxon Rye bread using flours from heritage grains. These include Tide Mill flour and combinations of rye, spelt, barley and corn flours. The Wrights are part of an efflorescence of bakers returning to traditional bread-making processes and using a wide diversity of heritage grains.

Ben McKinnon of E5 Bakehouse in London is at the heart of a resurgence in the use of heritage grains. He explained to me that baking bread is exciting, inventive and an “opportunity for putting sustainability into action”. This holistic philosophy runs through every aspect of the bakery from using a wood-fire oven and bicycles to make deliveries, to milling grain on-site and using quality local and organic ingredients with known provenance. He takes the integrity of E5 Bakehouse bread seriously and is continually learning, adapting, improving and extending his skills, recipes and range of ingredients. Popular loaves such as the Hackney Wild, Wholemeal Miche and Seeded Rye, along with new arrivals such as flatbreads and sprouted loaves, use diverse heritage grains such as amaranth. During the weekend of 24th–25th October, E5 Bakehouse is running a Farm to Loaf event with talks and conversations related to sustainability and health.

The final part of retracing the diversity path is done by the consumer. It is vital to challenge a “highly vulnerable system”, as Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas put it in their book Empires of Food, and to eat in a non-industrial way, as exemplified by the Slow Food movement. Taking time, effort and care is an important part of eating sustainably. It is also essential for supporting the organic plant breeders, small-scale farmers, millers and bakers who have opted out of the industrial system to produce a sustainable future for bread and to ensure it is the wholesome, healthy staple food it should be.

Photographs: Justin Partyka

Tags: artisan bread production, biodiversity, industrial food system, plant breeding